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Quick start gives perennial struggler Oita hope for successful year

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Oita HeatDevils entered the 2012-13 having played 328 regular-season games over the past seven seasons. The HeatDevils lost 200 of those games — a nice round number — and won on 128 occasions.

They’ve had one winning season, going 22-18 in 2006-07 under Dai Oketani, when Mikey Marshall, Andy Ellis, Justin Allen, Kohei Mitomo and current coach Yukinori Suzuki were among the team’s top players.

And they’ve come close to finishing above .500 on three occasions: 19-25 in 2007-08 (Oketani’s final season with Oita), 25-27 in 2009-10 (under Brian Rowsom, a former NBA forward) and 23-29 last season under Suzuki.

The HeatDevils have not qualified for the playoffs since the league’s second campaign, 2006-07. (Since then, 13 franchises have joined the league.)

Ricky Woods’ 52-point outburst on Feb. 28, 2010, remains the franchise record for scoring, while Jack Hartman’s 23-rebound effort on Jan. 7, 2006 is still the single-game standard.

The HeatDevils are one of the league’s original six teams, but one that has had limited success; only the Saitama Broncos (109-209 record and zero playoff appearances) have had less success than Oita among the league’s first-generation teams.

That said, Oita has a good chance of earning a playoff berth this season. The HeatDevils are 3-1 entering this weekend’s road series against the Miyazaki Shining Suns. Suzuki, a former guard, is in his second season at the helm after retiring as a player.

Credit the HeatDevils front office for assembling a talented, versatile roster that has as many proven players with a track record of success in the league as anyone.

Guard Matt Lottich won a three titles with the Osaka Evessa, and has been a valuable leader since joining Oita in the 2009-10 season. Forward Kazuya “J.” Hatano starred for all three of Osaka’s championship teams in 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08, and has been a steady defender and rugged rebounder since the league’s inception.

Guard Naoto Takushi won a title with the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the 2008-09 season (the first of Oketani’s two Ryukyu championships) and was twice picked for the league’s Best Five squad despite bouncing around the league (Ryukyu, Kyoto, Niigata and Oita) with a mercurial personality that has not enhanced his reputation.

Kohei Mitomo, meanwhile, is in his sixth season in a HeatDevils uniform, having suited up for the Kyushu club from 2005-08 and coming back after two campaigns with the Rizing Fukuoka. The veteran guard averaged 6.9 ppg in his first seven seasons in the league.

What’s more, former MVP Wendell White, a consistent 20-ppg scorer, helped lead the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to a championship in the 2009-10 season is a terrific tone-setter for Oita.

In addition, Guard Taishiro Shimizu, who has a 9.4 points-per-game career average, was a standout for the Saitama Broncos from 2005-10 before moving on to play for his hometown Shining Suns for two seasons.

Miyazaki unloaded all but one of its players from last season. The Shining Suns’ loss has been Oita’s gain.

“Taishiro has been an unbelievable addition. He is a complete player,” said Lottich, a Stanford University product has averaged 15.6 ppg in six seasons in the bj-league. In 2008-09, he played in Germany.

“He can shoot, dribble, pass, but his most impressive attribute is his ability to lead. Taishiro is just one of those guys whose presence you feel when he enters a room.”

“One obvious key for Oita this season has been its ability to consistently make good decisions with the basketball. The club has 91 assists and 50 turnovers through four games.

According to big man Taj Finger, another Stanford product who averaged 13.4 ppg in his first two seasons with the team, the 35-year-old Suzuki’s preparation skills have served the team well.

“I am very happy with coach Suzuki and think he is doing a great job so far,” Finger told The Japan Times earlier this week. “The first thing that he has done well is make sure that we are prepared to play each game. Not only with our offense and game plan, but really scouting the other team, knowing their weaknesses and taking advantage of it.

“He is also a great in-game coach. Often coming out of a timeout he will come up with a play that we have never done and we will get a basket out of it. The ability to do that, I think, is extremely important.”

When the league instituted its two-import rule for the first and third quarters and three-foreign quota for the second and fourth quarters plus overtime for this season, having experienced Japanese standouts became even more significant, and Shimizu and Hatano have made an impact. Shimizu is averaging 12.5 ppg, third-highest total on the team behind White’s 13.0 and Finger’s 17.0.

Hatano has never been a first-or second-option scorer, but has always been a hard-working contributor at both ends of the court. Case in point: His eight-point, eight-rebound, two-assist effort on Oct. 20 against the Kyoto Hannaryz.

The importance of the 192-cm Hatano’s size and strength cannot be overstated, especially on defense.

“J. is one of the few (Japanese) players in the league that can defend an American post player,” Lottich said of Hatano. “This provides us with a huge advantage because then we can play an American guard in the first and third quarters. Off the top of my head I can only think of one Japanese post player (Atsuya) Ota from Hamamatsu that provides the same value that J. does.”

Finger agreed with Lottich’s overall analysis.

“Enough can’t be said about Taishiro and J. They are extremely valuable to our team, especially because of the rule change this year where only two Americans are allowed on the court for the first and third quarters. Taishiro’s ability to score and shoot the 3 will be a big factor to our success. And J.’s ability to guard Americans will create huge mismatches for the Americans on the court.

“Both players will be key factors to how well the HeatDevils do this season.”

Poor start: The expansion Crane Thunders, 0-6 after two blowout losses to the Akita Northern Happinets last weekend, trailed 51-22 at halftime against Akita last Saturday, and were down 49-21 at the break a day later. Gunma has been outscored by 134 points in those six defeats.

Lousy free-throw shooting is another factor in the team’s performance to date. Gunma has shot 61.3 percent at the line. …

Weekly honor: Iwate Big Bulls center Dillion Sneed has helped his team go 6-0 to begin the season, including back-to-back wins over the Chiba Jets last weekend. Sneed is the Lawson Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced on Tuesday.

Sneed, who played college ball for East Tennessee State, had 23 points in the series opener against the Jets, followed by a 25-point, 12-rebound effort in the rematch.

Making adjustments: The Rizing (1-3) and Hannaryz (0-4), both coming off playoff appearances in 2011-12, have struggled in the season’s early going. The same is true for the Albirex (1-3).

One hoop insider gave his theory on why these teams are at or near the bottom of the standings.

“I think this new system has had a huge impact, and is one reason good teams like Kyoto and Niigata have gotten off to a slow start,” the insider said. “From quarter to quarter, one of your top-three import or Japanese players has to go to the bench.

“Getting into, or maintaining, a good flow is challenging.”

Upcoming games: The Tokyo Cinq Reves played their first home series of the season on Friday and Saturday, taking on the Toyama Grouses. Seven other series tip off on Saturday: Iwate Big Bulls vs. Gunma Crane Thunders, Niigata Albirex BB vs. Yokohama B-Corsairs, Chiba Jets vs. Shinshu Brave Warriors, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix vs. Shimane Susanoo Magic, Miyazaki Shining Suns vs. Oita HeatDevils, Kyoto Hannaryz vs. Rizing Fukuoka and Ryukyu Golden Kings vs. Shiga Lakestars.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp